The Woman taken in Adultery
Andrew Wilson, Brisbane, Australia | Dunstable, England [SEE PROFILE BELOW]
Most modern Bibles bracket John 7. 53 – 8. 11, as not in the original text of John’s gospel. The passage is about the adulteress brought to Christ. The reason is that these verses are not found in a number of the earliest Greek manuscripts we possess. As well, many modern commentaries argue that the vocabulary and style of the passage are unlike John’s and that the incident interrupts the flow of John’s gospel.
Vocabulary and Style
There are twelve Greek words in the passage that are found nowhere else in John’s Gospel. The passage, it is argued, exhibits too many peculiar and non- Johannine words to have been written by the New Testament writer famous for his down-sized vocabulary.
However, John’s Gospel has a number of other passages that contain a similarly high number of unique words. For example, John 4. 4-16, Christ and the Samaritan woman – a passage of equal length (13 verses) – actually contains eighteen Greek words nowhere else found in John’s Gospel. Likewise, John 6. 3-14 (the feeding of the five thousand), contains thirteen Greek words found nowhere else in John’s Gospel and John 21. 1-12 (the disciples’ fishing trip) likewise yields fifteen Greek words found nowhere else in John’s Gospel.
What these passages have in common with this passage is that they are all ‘action’ incidents in John’s Gospel. Due to the fact that ‘action’ events in John’s Gospel (as opposed to dialogues and discourses) are so few in number and so varied in content, it is easy to find at least half a dozen unique words in them.
Maybe the most frequently repeated stylistic argument against the passage concerns its unique use of the word ‘scribes’ in chapter 8 verse 3. Surely, John would have referred to the scribes elsewhere in his Gospel, particularly and like the other Gospels, alongside his twenty mentions of the Pharisees? The singular mention of ‘scribes’ here in John chapter 8 thus shows the use of a genuinely non- Johannine word in the passage, it is argued.
Much of the popular interest surrounding the incident centres on what Jesus wrote on the ground. However, perhaps a better question would be, not what, but why Jesus wrote on the ground. The answer may have something to do with the fact that the woman was brought by scribes - men who made their living by writing out and teaching the Law of God with care and reverence. Christ’s calligraphy added impact to His accusation of hypocrisy – ‘He that is without sin among you, let him cast the first stone’, John 8. 7. The scribes should have been convicted from God’s laws that they copied out every day of many sins of which they were themselves guilty. Therefore, that the scribes were the prime movers in condemning the woman seems an essential detail that required specific mention.
The argument that the passage interrupts the flow of John’s Gospel is frequently made in the commentaries, but strangely enough, rarely substantiated with explanations. Sadly, the lack of space forbids a lengthy examination of the thought-flow of John chapters 7-10; so three of John’s themes will have to suffice.
Firstly, John chapters 7 to 10 are all about Christ’s words and teachings. They involve one long debate between Christ and His opponents. The Jews marvel at His words, John 7. 15, 37-40, and particularly in chapter 7 verse 46 they state, ‘No man ever spoke like this man!’ The most notable feature of the passage is the brilliance of Christ’s words, ‘He who is without sin among you, let him cast the first stone’, 8. 7. There is hardly a more spectacular example of Christ’s genius; the saying is proverbial to this day, even amongst unbelievers. Thus, in the passage, we have the most powerful example of what John has spent much of the previous chapter of his gospel trying to prove – the marvel of Christ’s words and teachings.
A second feature of John chapters 7 to 10 concerns judgement. Thus, in chapter 8 verse 15, just three verses after the passage, Christ says, ‘You judge according to the flesh. I judge no man’. What prompted Christ to say this, if it was not the fact that He had just refused to condemn the adulteress? In fact, the theme of judgement permeates John chapters 7 and 8, see particularly 7. 24, 51; 8. 13-18 and 46. Thus, again, the graphic incident of the judgement of the adulteress seems to be the very centrepiece of the section. Christ’s response to the woman is also entirely in keeping with His stated purpose in coming to save, not to judge, John 3. 17.
Thirdly, Christ presents Himself twice as the Light of the World in chapters 8 and 9. A sign that confirms His claim usually accompanies such a declaration in John’s Gospel. Thus, following John 9 verse 5, Christ gives sight to the blind man. So, what prompted Christ’s declaration that He is the light of the world in chapter 8 verse 12? The obvious answer is that Christ had just exposed the hypocrisy and sinfulness of the scribes who brought in the woman to be judged by Him. Christ continues to shed the light of truth throughout John 8 as He convicts of sin, see 7. 19; 8. 21, 24, 34 and His proof that the Jews’ father is the devil in John 8. We might put it this way: in chapter 8, Christ as the Light of the World diagnoses our problem - sin - but in chapter 9, He deals with our problem. We need light (chapter 8), but also sight (chapter 9).
Other themes in John 7-10 that connect with the passage include the Law of Moses, attempts to trap Christ, sexual sins and the Feast of Tabernacles. The passage appears so contextually well-suited that it must be considered an integral part of John’s gospel. It is actually the omission of the passage that forces a discontinuity, not vice versa.
The internal witness of the passage itself confirms the account of the woman taken in adultery to be an original and important the part of John’s Gospel with a powerful message. Christ exposes our sinfulness, but rather than judge us, He has come to save us by bearing our sins upon the cross.
AUTHOR PROFILE: Commended by the assembly at Bexley, Sydney, Australia, in 1994, and together with his wife, Gillian, has sought to serve the Lord in New South Wales, Australia, and then London, UK. Involved in evangelistic, children's and Bible teaching ministries. He now resides in Brisbane, Australia.